Taft: More than Alma Mater

The University of Illinois is awash in Lorado Taft's work, with Alma Mater, soon to be returned to campus, the most famous.

The artist's presence here ranges from large figures on the southern end of the Quad to busts in UI offices and in its library, to "Lincoln The Lawyer" in Urbana's Carle Park, to thousands of documents in the UI Archives, to an entire gallery in the Krannert Art Museum.

"But most people don't know there is so much" of the famous sculptor's work here, says Krannert Art Museum curator and Taft author Robert LaFrance.

You can still see Lorado Taft's home

Built in the 1873 by the artist's father, Don Carlos Taft, a geology professor, it stood at 601 E. John St., C, until the University of Illinois moved it to 1401 S. Maryland Drive, U, to make room for the Swanlund Administration Building. The building now houses offices for the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

Melvyn Skvarla, the Urbana campus' historic preservation officer, describes it as Italianate/Queen Anne Revival with some nice touches such as double bay windows and two large porches. Another UI historic preservationist, Alice Novak, notes that a large part of the house is no longer with us.

Lorado Taft had messy handwriting and money troubles

In a handwritten speech found on the back of a letter, Taft told fellow Illinois alumni about Alma Mater's history: "A wealthy friend agreed to pay for the casting if I would contribute the model. Business reverses thwarted this plan, but the cooperation of the alumni has made the work possible." The Depression would make new public sculpture commissions a rarity, hurting Taft's bank account in his last years, but he still commanded $500 for a lecture in the 1930s.

Improving on Alma Mater

Taft said "I once told Daniel Chester French that his noble 'Alma Mater' on the steps of Columbia's library was happily expressive of the reserve and reticence of the east; that a western mother must be more cordial. So I made my lady with level wide opened arms and smiling face." LaFrance said the magnificent "The Blind" at his museum was also a reaction, in this case to a Rodin group sculpture with spread-out figures; "The Blind" has a close group of lost blind adults centered around a child who can see — and might lead them out of the wilderness.

41 boxes, 150 art objects

University Archivist Bill Maher says the Taft boxes take up 17 cubic feet of the archives in Main Library. In the Krannert Art Museum, besides the formidable "The Blind," where once only one Taft sculpture was on display, there's an entire Taft gallery, part of 150 art objects from Taft's estate — many of them are small and many are not on display, LaFrance says.

Art after death

"The Blind" was only cast in 1988, 52 years after its creator died. Taft made models of the statue. The UI had a plaster version that was decaying, so UI artists preserved by having it cast in bronze, LaFrance notes.

More than one Lincoln

Most people know about the young "Lincoln The Lawyer" in Urbana's Carle park, across from Urbana High School. There's a different Taft take on Lincoln in the UI's College of Law, Skvarla points out.

Taft was a newspaperman

As a child in Champaign in 1874, he created Grandparents Gazette, which offered news for his grandparents, as well as helpful tips such as "Directions for Stealing Cake." Another issue of the handwritten Grandparents Gazette includes a map of John Street, where he lived as a boy, Maher says.

Did you know?

1. Lorado Taft was the first choice to sculpt Mount Rushmore. In 1923, Doane Robinson, who proposed the idea of carving into the mountain, asked Taft to sculpt "notable Sioux such as Red Cloud." Taft declined, citing poor health.

2. During World War II, the Navy named a Liberty Ship the SS Lorado Taft.

3. The large limestone sculptures of Deucalion and Pyrrha's children beside the UI Library and Foellinger Auditorium are part of an even larger Lorado Taft work never completed. It was intended for Chicago's Midway, Urbana art historian Muriel Scheinman writes in "A Guide to Art at the University of Illinois."

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